28th May 2022


Stripping citizenship is a power best left to history books

  • Citizenship-stripping leads to the erosion of citizenship as a right. (Photo: Wayne MacPhail)
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On 28 February 2022, Latvia decided to enable Latvian citizens to serve in the military of Ukraine.

While Latvian law states that nationality can be revoked if a citizen serves in the armed forces or military organisation of another country, it provides exemptions for several countries.

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Ukraine has now been added to a list of exempted countries, meaning that Latvian citizens who join the Ukrainian armed forces can no longer be deprived of citizenship on that ground.

But the Latvian policy of giving Latvian citizens the assurance that their nationality won't be revoked for fighting Russia in Ukraine is an exception that proves the rule.

The fact that an armed conflict elsewhere in Europe had consequences for Latvian citizenship law chimes with the global trend over the past two decades of an increasing instrumentalization of citizenship on the pretext of national security.

As we conclude in a report that will be published next week, in almost 80 percent of countries around the world, citizens can be deprived of their citizenship based on disloyalty, military or other service to a foreign country or other criminal offences.

These deprivation powers have also increased significantly in the post-9/11 period.

Our evidence shows that since 2000, one-in-five countries have added new grounds for nationality deprivation that relate to national security or counter-terrorism. More than half of these countries were in Europe, making it the epicentre of resurgent interest in citizenship stripping.

This trend is worrying for several reasons.

Citizenship as a right

First, citizenship-stripping leads to the erosion of citizenship as a right. The majority of deprivation powers target only certain categories of citizen — most commonly citizens by naturalisation — instituting a second-class, conditional citizenship that can be taken away on the basis of discretionary government decisions.

Newly-minted nationality-deprivation powers increase both direct and indirect discrimination against minority communities, serving to bolster and justify racist, xenophobic and populist narratives.

Secondly, the alarming position of many European states on this measure also suggests that the region is forgetting its own dark history associated with nationality-deprivation — wielded in the 20th century, in particular, by totalitarian regimes as a weapon of exclusion against unwanted citizens.

The potential normalisation of denationalisation as a legitimate power for the state to hold over its own citizens also has a knock-on impact internationally for efforts to protect the right to nationality and prevent statelessness.

Third, citizenship stripping invariably upsets the law-based international order.

In our report, we detail stories of two denationalised Dutch citizens who were nonetheless deported back to the Netherlands by Turkey because it still considered this to be their country of "origin"; a denationalised French citizen stranded in limbo in France because of obstacles to deportation; and a denationalised Australian citizen eventually admitted to New Zealand (the country of second citizenship) in an episode that caused diplomatic tension between the two states.

And the list goes on.

Lack of data

Publicly-available statistics indicate that the number of people affected remain low (other than in Bahrain and the UK where the figures are into the hundreds). But the lack of comprehensive data on implementation makes it hard to gauge truly how much these measures have been used in practice.

There is evidence that some states which initially adopted nationality deprivation powers to address the perceived threat of foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, have ultimately favoured repatriation, rehabilitation and de-radicalisation as a policy response — electing to take responsibility for their citizens rather than to export the problem.

Latvia's latest citizenship law reform is a case in point of the inconsistencies linked with instrumentalizing citizenship for policy ends.

While a state's position on a conflict will be determined by its foreign policy, citizens will have vastly diverse and contradictory positions and rationales when confronted with the possibility of participating in armed conflict.

Blanket state approvals of 'just causes' and prohibitions of 'unjust causes' strip the individual of agency and gloss over the fact that people will have good and bad reasons for joining the same conflict.

The disproportionality and arbitrariness of permanent banishment from the political community for some, is brought into sharp focus when laws are changed to avoid this same fate for others.

As security experts have commented, citizenship stripping is a course of action through which states are essentially "avoiding the tough, but necessary, responsibility of dealing with their own citizens [… and] will only create greater danger in the future".

Instead, states should completely relegate this power to the history books and do the responsible thing of protecting citizens and prosecuting criminal behaviour, including where actions against the interests of the state are codified criminal offences.

Author bio

Laura van Waas is co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) and assistant professor at Tilburg Law School. Maarten Vink is co-director of the Global Citizenship Observatory (GLOBALCIT) and chair in citizenship studies at the Robert Schuman Centre, European University Institute.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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